Slave Revolts At the Dinner Table


Deipnosophists, 1657
BY Athenaeus
EDITED BY Isaac Casaubon
PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons

Finding out about slaves in antiquity is not easy. First, we only have literature written by their masters, who generally were not interested in their slaves. Secondly, we only have a fraction of the literature surviving that was written. In the case of slave revolts, it is even more problematic since there are various reasons why masters would not wish to record such actions on the part of their slaves: they were ashamed that they could not control their slaves; they did not wish to celebrate rebellions by recording them (after all, one of the stated aims of many historians was to immortalise their subjects by recounting their deeds); and lastly but perhaps most importantly, they did not wish to encourage further subversion by advertising it.

There exists from antiquity a long work by a man called Athenaeus, a Greek writer from Naucratis in Egypt, who wrote The Philosophers at Dinner.[1] It is not a particularly famous work, but it contains some comments about slaves and slavery that are unlike anything else from the works that remain from ancient Greece and Rome. Slaves were everywhere in classical antiquity, in the temples, in the mines, in the fields, in the shops, in the streets, in the home, in the bedroom, everywhere except represented in art or literature. There are exceptions to this, but for the ancient historian trying to find information about slaves, as about women, the search is often time-consuming. Usually one has to make do with a passing reference, but for once in a work, there is an entire discussion. However, the work of Athenaeus is not very well read even by academics. A relatively recent volume of essays on this particular text starts its introduction with the words “Few modern scholars admire Athenaeus.”[2] And it continues: “But then few would claim even to have read him.”

The work as a whole is rather daunting. It is very long and mainly about food. It purports to give an account of a banquet hosted by a man called Larensius, and Athenaeus, who was present at the banquet, tells his friend Timocrates what they talked about at dinner. So it is a story within a story.[3]

To get an idea of the topics of conversation, one only has to look at the index of the Loeb translation – fish, for instance, had thirty-nine entries, and one of those entries is forty-five pages long and several are more than a page each. Then there were entries for fish-baskets, fish diviners, fishing, fish paste, fish pickle and of course entries for individual fish like cod, which had only two entries, while mullet had thirteen. Wine had one and a half columns of entries. There were entries for wine biscuit, wine clarifiers, wine coolers, wine drinking, wine mixer, wine pourer, wine press, wine shops, and wineskins. Snails had four entries but one entry was six pages long, another four. There were twenty-three mentions of figs, and of course further entries for fig leaves and fig sellers. Slaves had eleven references for that entry, fewer than for mullet. There is virtually no politics or religion.

One book — Book XIII — is all about women. One learns very little about women, but perhaps more than one would like about men’s attitudes toward them. In fact, the topic is more about sex than women. One quotation will perhaps give the flavour:

Concerning the professional ‘companions’ [i.e. the word ‘hetaira’ which literally means companion is used also of high class prostitutes. It is usually translated as ‘courtesan’] Philetaerus says this in The Huntress: ‘No wonder there is a shrine to the hetaira everywhere, but nowhere in all of Greece is there one to the wife.

— 13.572d

In particular, it was upon reading the discussion in this book that I reconsidered the nature of the information about slaves earlier on. This discussion of women was so unrestrained (so much so that the earlier translator translated some parts into Latin rather than English) that it seemed, perhaps, a fairly realistic rendition of male conversation after a big dinner with lots of wine. The banqueters naturally — having talked about wine, water, fruit, vegetables, seasonings, salt, figs, meat, fish, shellfish, saltwater fish, freshwater fish, music, luxury, more fish, eels, octopus, the sexlife of shellfish, fish sauce, birds, pork, fat and thin people — move on to consider falling in love with girls’ bottoms and then sex with men as well as women. In Book XIV, they return to wine and go on to music and dancing and figs, and in the final book, they talk about wine, wreaths, flowers, perfumes and poetry.

In other words, this was the discussion at a dinner party of a group of well-educated men, who liked their food, wine and extravagant living. So what is the discussion of slaves doing there? It is introduced because like women, music, food, wine and fish, slaves play their part at banquets. The reader is informed when slaves bring in more food, and what delicacies they are bringing in and one of the characters, Democritus, comments on the self-restraint shown by slaves. Although they bring in plate after plate of the most delicious food, they somehow can stop themselves from eating it. The diners are supposed to be philosophers, so they are interested in the concept of self-control even if they show very little of it themselves. This leads on to a discussion of slavery which is unique in its range and length.

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  1. The work is known by various titles: The Deipnosophistae or The Deipnosophists, The Banqueting Sophists, The Gastronomers, The Learned Banqueters or The Philosophers at Dinner. Athenaeus wrote it somewhere around the end of the second century A.D. and the beginning of the third. S. Douglas Olson has recently brought out a new translation for Loeb: The Learned Banqueters, Vols. 1-7. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2006-11. The old translation was by C. B. Gulick: The Deipnosophists, Vols. 1-7. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1927-41.
  1. Athenaeus and His World. Eds. David Braund and John Wilkins. University of Exeter Press, 2000. 1.
  1. The Greek text is divided into fifteen books. A translation can be found in the Loeb edition, which is in seven volumes. Twenty-four characters are named, twenty-three seem to have been at the dinner party – the twenty-fourth is Timocrates who hears about it. It has been observed that this work is “in some respects the most important work of later antiquity.” (See Gulick’s translation, Vol. 1, xv.) Because it preserves lost authors and works, and that it is replete with quotations – Athenaeus quotes over 1,000 authors and over 10,000 lines of verse, many not known from any other text. So if you are interested in lost works, this is a mine for them.

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